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Semiformalishmaybe

Why I am Wary of Intersectionality

I've been hooking up some things I observed in undergrad with modern terms for them, and doing a bit of mental tidying/sorting. Hooking up intersectionality with some concerns, I have a better handle for why I'm wary of the term.

Perhaps I should've said the concept, or more precisely how it's often applied. The term is itself fairly innocuous (almost uninteresting); the idea that patterns of oppression can be layered and that both privilege and disadvantage are not always trivially additive. The reason I am wary of it is that in the flavours of radical feminism I encountered, it was usually applied as a bridge to attach their (IMO bad) version of feminism into other movements.

The problem with how this was done is that it was uncritical. It assumed that anyone who was disapproved of or faced oppression was "the good guy" and that any disapproval or oppression is bad. This is problematic in that it both limits the scope of feminism and that many of these groups don't merit that connection. Classifying the examples:

  • There are causes where I think that's a legitimate tie (this judgement is of course perspective-laden). Anti-racism and feminism, at least in most forms, are justifiable (and in my perspective, justified) in the same terms, as a desire to remove unjustifiable limits to human potential. If you believe in and admire how much potential our species has and look across its variety to see little difference across the many races and two genders, you'll want to eliminate sexist and racist limits to that potential. My preferred approach is to eliminate gender roles, and were it even still a relevant concept in western society (as it still may be in efforts to eliminate the caste system in india), we'd want to eliminate race/caste roles as well.
  • There are causes where I don't think that's a legitimate tie that have independent justifications but are still worthwhile causes. My reasoning for full and equal civil rights for homosexuals and bisexuals is significantly independent from the above and has its own arguments.
  • There are causes where I find them entirely uninteresting and have mixed reactions to whatever they're pushing at. The pro-fat-people, anti-ablist, and pro-transgender movements are like this for me (but in different ways); I don't want any of the people represented to be assaulted, but I am not entirely on board with what I view as the mainstream calls by the movements (and I reject or am skeptical of some of their particular calls for behavioural reforms). There are a few other positions that don't exactly have a cause that are often lumped in here (e.g. those who are really really anti-cultural-appropriation, or radically multiculturalist)
  • There are causes which I actively find dangerous or otherwise actively oppose (the pro-ana movement, pro-aspie movement, and those parts of the disabled culture movements that have been known to intentionally create the disability in children so as to lock them into those cultures)
The radical feminist movement, in my experience, uses intersectionality to mandate support for this whole gamut of causes, typically in the form of "safe spaces" where if anyone is offended by anything anyone else says, the other person has to listen to their story of victimness and had better submit or STFU because they're privileged enough to be in a group that's not offended.

That's shit.

We should feel comfortable thinking about each and every cause we take on and not feel obliged by some gut notion of respect to yield on every topic to someone who's part of some minority. We can entertain arguments and think about these things, but there *must* not be an obligation to yield on all of them. It is worthwhile to try to put oneself in other people's shoes and to really stretch one's mind to imagine how life might be, living with some status one lacks, but many times after that exercise one might decide that whatever's in question is still unjustifiable, and that is absolutely ok. Sometimes victims go on to victimise others (look at the early years of Israel, particularly Irgun, for a prime example), sometimes they just have unreasonable demands. We need to actually think about these things to figure this out; it's not something where an automatic yes or no will suffice. Reasonable people will often disagree too, and calls to exclude others (or consider them rude) for not agreeing to a sufficiently long or precise laundry list of philosophical demands is all-elbows (and easily leads to groups being unstable if two victim-parading groups are at cross-ends).

It is helpful when we can decide on some basics needed for everyone to at least feel safe; the idea that nobody should be subject to personal or institutional violence or coercion if they're in one of these groups (which is an area where I am in full solidarity with even the meh causes; I may find deformed people physically unappealing, but if someone's beating them up just because they're ugly, I will defend the victim). Likewise with personal attacks; I would get very grumbly if a person were being called worthless for needing a wheelchair to get around. Some amount of tossing jokes around and even terms that are not particularly flattering around are things I'd generally be ok with (or object less strongly to, depending on specifics), but when it gets personal and confrontational, it would not be acceptable. This standard is not entirely parallel with what some parts of the movements around these groups demand, but it's an important start and should help people feel secure in society and not feel entirely rejected if they don't get the other things they're pushing for (less physical activity in recess so disabled kids don't feel left out? it being unacceptable to state a preference for certain body types or races when describing what one likes on a dating site? etc).

We need to be able to fill these categories readily, and so much as is possible without too much gravity towards one set of conclusions:

  • Life choices we affirm
  • Life choices we accept
  • Live choices we'd rather not accept but don't want to make a fuss over, at least in the short-term
  • Life choices we actively oppose
I also believe we should feel theoretical commitments that we're willing to fight over as a burden, and not take them on lightly. Someone whose commitment to a few stances is such that they require all their friends to share them might do okay, but someone whose has passionate commitment to a lot of these causes in that way so that they might disown their former self (before taking on these burdens) or most people around them is putting a millstone around their own neck, particularly if they're always nagging everyone around them on these topics and the commitments they demand are ones where reasonable people in those same movements might disagree.

Basically, I think intersectionality is either reasonably uninteresting as a small concept or it's something that makes subtlety and structured consideration of the ties between movements (and corrisponding norms within them) difficult. It's as dangerous in this regard as privilege (which easily leads to disqualification-style arguments), but the basic concept of privilege is absolutely necessary for understanding a lot of social ills.

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